BAIDOA, July 28 (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead a Somali minister outside a mosque on Friday at the fragile interim government’s provincial base Baidoa in what one official called an “organised assassination”.
Witnesses said gunmen opened fire on Constitution and Federalism Minister Abdallah Deerow Isaq as he left prayers — an attack sure to heighten tensions in the violence-plagued Horn of Africa nation which many fear is sliding towards war.
“So far we do not know who did it. They shot him as he was leaving the mosque then ran off. Police are chasing the gunmen,” Information Minister Mohamed Abdi Hayr told Reuters from Baidoa, seat of the fragile interim Somali government.
“It looks like an organised assassination,” he added.
Formed in 2004 in the 14th attempt to restore central rule to Somalia since the 1991 ousting of a military dictator, the government’s authority has been challenged by the rise of an Islamist movement that took Mogadishu and other towns in June.
Borne out of sharia courts formed from the mid-1990s to restore some order to Mogadishu during a period of anarchy and violence, the Islamists defeated U.S.-backed warlords in Mogadishu and have since expanded to take other towns.
With Ethiopian troops now said to be in Somalia to support the government, and Eritrea believed by many to be arming the Islamists, many Somalis are bracing for full-scale conflict.
A Baidoa hospital nurse said Isaq, a former schoolteacher, came in with four bullet wounds in the heart and chest.
“The doctors tried to check him but he was already dead,” she told Reuters by telephone.
There was no immediate reaction from the Islamists.
Shocked diplomats and analysts said the killing could have been by an Islamist extremist or linked to internal divisions within the government. A no confidence motion on Prime Minister Ali Gedi is due to be debated in parliament on Saturday.
“The situation is so confused and tense in Baidoa, it looks like someone wanted to deepen this,” a Western diplomat in Nairobi said.
Omar Jamal, a U.S.-based Somali exile who heads an advocacy group, said sources in Baidoa told him militants were to blame.
“The only organisations that can carry out such well-thought out plans in Somalia now are organisations affiliated to al Qaeda,” he said.
In Mogadishu, another mysterious plane landed on Friday, fuelling suspicions the Islamists were receiving weapon deliveries. Their militia blocked roads near the airport as unidentified cargo was unloaded.
Residents said several trucks came to collect the delivery from the airport. “The Islamists are arming themselves and now we have to wait for fighting,” said resident Abdullahi Ali.
On Wednesday, a cargo plane delivered goods an Islamist aide said were sewing machines. But the government pointed the finger at Eritrea, which it said was secretly arming the Islamists.
In what government sources say were moves to draw the Islamists into peace talks and avert war, 18 ministers and other top officials quit the interim government on Thursday and lawmakers sought to oust the prime minister.
Government officials and analysts say offering the prime minister’s job and some other ministerial posts to the Islamists in a power-sharing pact could be the only way to secure peace.